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Eucatastrophe: The Return  by Dreamflower

(Written for Marigold's Challenge #38)

AUTHOR'S NOTES: (1) Challenge elements in this part are a glove and a bar of soap. (2) This story takes place in my "Eucatastrophe" universe; in that universe, the Three Elven Rings did not fade, but were freed to full power by the destruction of the One, Saruman was killed by Quickbeam during the storming of Isengard, and the journey to Elvenhome is now a two-way trip, allowing those who have gone to return to Middle-earth, if they so choose…
Part four was beta’d by Llinos and Marigold.
SUMMARY: A return home, and a new and less perilous adventure awaits Frodo…
DISCLAIMER: Middle-earth and all its peoples belong to the Tolkien Estate. I own none of them. Some of them, however, seem to own me.
PREVIOUSLY: Frodo, Merry and Pippin arrived in Bree, in the company of the Rangers, Mellor and Eradan.

EUCATASTROPHE: THE RETURN, PART FOUR

Merry lay abed in comfort, though he was quite awake. The beds at the Pony were comfortable--they were built with Dwarves as well as Hobbits in mind, and so were plenty long enough. He'd slept well enough. The first time he and Pippin had come here after they returned, he'd worried that memories of the night the Black Riders attacked would give him unpleasant dreams. But old Butterbur had turned the rooms out completely, and redone them, so that while they were still cosily furnished with the likes of Little Folk in mind, all had been re-arranged and painted, to drive out any dark associations.

He could hear both Frodo and Pippin stirring. He wondered how long they would let him get away with pretending to still be asleep. The question was answered when a pillow landed on his face with a thump.

"Merry, you slug-a-bed! Be awake!" He could hear the amused impatience in Pippin's voice.

He gave a half-hearted moan. "Pippin, have some respect for your elders!" He turned over, pulling the pillow over the back of his head.

His ruse did no good. The covers were drawn back with a yank. "You have some respect for *yours*, Meriadoc!" laughed Frodo, giving a tug to his foot for good measure. "Come along! The morning is wasting away--it's a nice new day, and we have a road awaiting us!"

Merry shook his head in amazement, but grumbling good-naturedly, swung his feet to the floor. "I can't believe this is my cousin Frodo Baggins! Since when have you been an early bird?

Frodo chuckled. "Since Pippin's rumbling stomach woke me up at the crack of dawn. Come now, Merry!"

Merry ambled over to the washstand and poured water in the ewer. He splashed his face and washed his hands with the bar of rosemary soap provided, and then turned to find his livery, where he had left it at the foot of the bed. He and Pippin had made the decision to travel armed and armoured--it was the Wide World, after all.

He was buckling on his cuirass, when he saw Pippin, who'd already finished, down on his knees, looking under the bed.

Frodo, who had been watching them in fascination--for he'd never quite got used to the idea they were warriors--looked over at Pippin.

"Whatever are you doing, Pippin?"

There was a grunt, and a mutter of "Got it!" He scooted backwards. "One of my riding gloves has fallen under the bed," he explained.

Merry strode over, and gave his younger cousin a hand up. Pippin gave a small wince as he stood up, and Merry looked at him reproachfully. "You shouldn't be crawling around on the floor with that knee."

Pippin just shrugged. "It's just something I have to get used to. It will work itself out in a few minutes." He tucked the glove into his belt with its mate, and then glanced at Frodo, whose expression was decidedly unhappy. "Good heavens, Frodo! I thought you were finished with all that! My knee is *not* your fault!"

Merry followed Pippin's gaze, and felt the familiar pangs of worry. Frodo had been so happy and cheerful. Was he not really over his feelings of guilt and shame?

Naturally Frodo noticed their expressions of wary alarm. He gave a rueful chuckle. "I really *am* healed. Now I know the difference between what I could have done, and what I could not, and I am not going to fall back into melancholy. But it does not change the fact that I am your older cousin, and I will always feel badly that it was on my account that either one of you came to harm through following after me." He smiled. "It also doesn't change the fact that I'm very glad you *did* come, and that I am immensely proud of you both."

"Yes. Well." Pippin shook his head. It was true enough that even before the Quest Frodo had an overdeveloped sense of being responsible for them.

Merry chuckled. "Well. You dragged me out of a comfortable bed. So shall we go and get some breakfast?"

When they arrived in the common room, they learned that Mellor and Eradan had breakfasted early and headed out to the stables to check on their horses, so the cousins sat down and ordered their own breakfast--sausages, fried potatoes and mushrooms, eggs, scones, blackberry jam and a pot of tea. They were on their second servings when the two Rangers returned.

"Come, join us and have a bit of second breakfast," Frodo invited cordially.

Mellor laughed. "I am afraid we've not digested our first yet!" Nevertheless, the two sat down on the floor, and accepted cups of tea.

By mid-morning, they were riding East out of Bree. Unlike the first time they had come through, there was little interest in their small party--over the last couple of years the Bree-landers had become more or less used to the comings and goings of Rangers, and even Shire hobbits were no longer a novelty.

They'd not gone far, when Pippin pointed to a copse of trees to the north of the road. "Over there! That's where Strider took us off the road to go across country!"

Merry looked at the spot, remembering. "He said his 'cuts, short or long, did not go wrong'."

"No, I suppose not, though it wasn't the most pleasant way to go." Pippin scratched at his arm, as if remembering the midge-bites of long ago.

Frodo laughed. "It's true he did not get us lost, but I think he dragged us into every single bog between here and Weathertop."

Mellor shook his head. "The Midgewater Marshes are to be avoided at any rate!"

Merry gazed about him. They had come this way from the other direction when returning from the Quest, but it looked different heading East. Also, it had been rather dreary in the autumn, but now late spring had lent a cheerful glow to the world, and there were flowers by the road and birdsong in the trees. He glanced at the Rangers. "How far will we go before we camp tonight?"

"We shall not be camping--The Forsaken Inn is now once more open, and we shall stay there the night. But it will be camping again from there to the Last Bridge." Mellor raised an eyebrow. "I look forward to seeing what they've done to the inn. It has been in deplorable shape for many years."

Pippin nodded. "I remember seeing the building when we were on our way home. It was hardly more than a ruin."

"Yes, Gandalf told us it had once been an inn; otherwise we'd never have known it," said Merry.

"Is it still known as 'The Forsaken Inn'?" Frodo asked curiously. "It scarcely seems a name to inspire custom."

"I believe I have heard the new owners may wish to give it another name," replied Eradan, "but so far no one has called it anything else."

"What's it like?" Pippin asked. "Is the beer good?"

Mellor laughed. "Well, as this shall be our first time to stay there as well, we shall find out together!"

The day passed pleasantly enough, with the hobbits snacking from their saddlebags, while they all chatted or sang, or simply enjoyed the lovely spring weather. The day was pleasant, neither too cool nor too warm, and the sky a beautiful blue with a few puffy clouds.

To the amusement of the Men, Frodo and Pippin indulged in finding shapes in them for a while. Merry did not take part in their game, but simply enjoyed listening to them. It was not something he'd ever thought to hear Frodo doing again, though it had been a favourite pastime of Pippin's from the time he was barely more than a faunt.  

Frodo pointed--"That one, Pip! Doesn't it look somewhat like Minas Tirith?"

Pippin squinted. "Maybe, a little, but now the wind's blown the top of the Citadel off, and now it looks more like Bilbo's last birthday cake."

Merry rolled his eyes, and Frodo chuckled. "And were you old enough to remember that cake?" he asked.

A rather dreamy look came over Pippin's face. "Oh, yes! I remember it all right! It was one of Mistress Lily's masterpieces…" he sighed, and then grinned. "Bilbo did me a great favour, vanishing as he did! Everyone was far too taken up with his trick for them to pay attention to a little hobbit lad. I think I managed to get at least five pieces before Pearl hauled me off…" He licked his lips in remembrance, and all of his companions burst into laughter. Merry shook his head. After all these years, he was still learning new things about Pippin Took. But then, he'd been too worried about Frodo that night to notice what Pippin was up to. Little though they'd known it, that had been the start of it all.

They stopped for luncheon, to rest the ponies, and have a smoke, and then they were once more upon the road. Now they saw other travellers passing them in the opposite direction from time to time.

It was mid-afternoon when they saw a small waggon, being driven by an elderly Man, but with two Dwarves seated alongside him. The waggon-bed was piled high beneath a large canvas covering. They paused for a moment and hailed the little party.

After introductions and pleasantries had been exchanged, they began to discuss the state of the Road.

"All is well," said Mellor, "from here to Bree, and even beyond to the Shire, from which our companions here came."

The Man gave the hobbits a shrewd look. "These goods are indeed destined for the Shire! They have been sent all the way from Erebor, some of them are destined for Buckland--they seem to be wedding gifts."

Merry looked startled, and Frodo and Pippin laughed at him. Then Frodo said, "Well, I suppose I could even guess as to what some of those are, and from whom, but I won't." He chuckled knowingly, and then said "And what of the Road to the East?"

Merry gazed at the waggon. When they had said "wedding gifts" his first thoughts had been of Gimli. But now it sounded as though Frodo had sent for some things there himself, perhaps before sailing. He narrowed his eyes, and wished he could see what was under the covering. But then his attention was caught.

One of the Dwarves was shaking his head and saying, "We encountered no difficulties ourselves," and he patted the axe at his side, "and I am certain such a well-armed party as yourselves will have no trouble, but there was some talk at the Inn last night of lone travellers being waylaid by brigands in that area."

This alarmed Mellor and Eradan, and they questioned the merchants closely, but the three knew no more than the bits of gossip they had heard the night before at The Forsaken Inn.

The waggon drove on, and the others decided to pick up the pace, and go more swiftly.

The shadows had lengthened, but it was still broad daylight, when the five tired travellers came within sight of the Inn. A tiny village--consisting of just a few cottages and a smithy, seemed to have sprung up about it.

The hobbits studied it closely. Frodo did not remember anything about it, but Merry and Pippin recalled passing it on the way home--it had then been not much more than a tumble down ruin. This building looked brand new: half-timbers yet unweathered, the mortar between the stones still white, the thatching still golden. Only the stone foundation along one side looked old. It had two large stories, and was built in an L-shape. It was about half the size of The Pony. A long wooden stable was perpendicular to the building, and the courtyard was paved with cobbles. A well stood in the centre. There *was* no sign there at all, though it was clear the inn stood open for business.

A little boy of about ten came running up, calling out "Da! Customers!" before offering to take the horses and ponies for stabling. As was their custom, Mellor and Eradan refused the offer of help, for their steeds, while not war-horses, were nevertheless rather spirited, and were not used to being handled by other than their own riders.

The boy grinned at the hobbits, before taking the ponies, and followed Mellor and Eradan, wide-eyed. "Are you *really* Rangers?" he asked eagerly.

The cousins turned towards the Inn door, where a Man, of early middle years stood. "Welcome to our Inn, little masters! Tad Rushlight, at your service."

As the oldest, Frodo made the introductions. "I am Frodo Baggins. And these are my cousins, Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took.   We would like to take a room. We are also travelling with the two Rangers who are now in the stables; I believe they would also like a room as well."

The innkeeper gave a start at their names, and then a shrewd look, but all he said was "I'm afraid we've no hobbit-style rooms, as they have back at the Pony in Bree, but I do have a nice ground floor room in the south wing that could accommodate you three. And I've a room for the Rangers as well." He glanced over at a young matron who was standing behind the bar wiping mugs. "Molly, me love, I'm just a-going to show these gentlehobbits to their room."

She nodded, and gave a smile of greeting to the hobbits. She was dark-haired and pleasantly plump, with a sprinkle of freckles across her pert nose. She looked vaguely familiar to Merry, which was explained by their host's next words.

The Man grinned proudly. "Me wife. 'Twas her father, Barliman Butterbur, as set us up here in business. Thought 'twould help his own business to have an inn along the way to Bree, and said 'twas time that the Forsaken Inn was forsaken no longer." He led the way along a wide corridor, limping very slightly.

"I beg your pardon, Mr. Rushlight," said Pippin curiously, "but I noticed that your inn has no sign."

He gave a wry shrug. "Well, as to that, the wife and me, we have a disagreement as to what we should call it. My wife wants to call it The Cat and Fiddle, after a song she heard once."

Frodo blushed, and Merry and Pippin put their hands over their mouths to stifle their laughter.

"Now, me, I want to call it The King's Rest, seeing as there's a King again now and all. But she says the old inn 'twere a ruin for ever so long, and it's not likely the King ever rested at it. I suppose she's right, but still, I like that name a sight better than The Cat and Fiddle!"

He flung open a door on the left-hand side of the corridor. There was a room, cosy by the standards of Men, but rather large for hobbits, with a bed that would indeed accommodate the three of them comfortably, a small hearth, and a washstand.

"This looks very nice," said Merry approvingly. The large windows were square, and the furniture Man-sized, but they had dealt with that enough in Minas Tirith. He turned to the innkeeper. "Mr. Rushlight, do you think you could bring us a small stool? That and some fresh water for the ewer should be all we need to feel quite comfortable."

"That I will little masters!" He bowed. "Would you like a meal sent to your room?"

Frodo shook his head. "I think we will take our meal in the common room with our friends."

The innkeeper left, and only a few minutes later, he tapped on the door, bringing fresh water and clean towels, and a small stool on which they could stand to wash or to clamber into the bed.

Merry looked about the room, and then hung his cloak and pack on the foot of the bed, Pippin and Frodo followed suit, and then, after washing faces and hands, and combing heads and feet, they made their way back into the common room.

Mellor and Eradan soon joined them, and this time they were sitting at a table meant for Big Folk, for that was all there was to be had. Merry and Pippin were not too uncomfortable, but Merry called for Rushlight, to bring a cushion for Frodo to sit on. Their toes dangled before them, and they felt like children. Mrs. Rushlight came over, and took their order: lamb stew, with bread, cheese and ale. She bustled away and soon returned with their meal.

Merry sighed and swung his feet back and forth. "I remember doing this in Minas Tirith. Oh well, the world outside the Shire is meant for Big Folk anyway." He dug in to the lamb stew with alacrity, realizing as the appetizing smell reached him, just how hungry he was.

Pippin laughed. "Ah, but it's a sight more comfortable for us than when the Big Folk visit the Shire! They have to sit upon the floor there, and are always banging their heads upon the ceilings." He grinned. "I'm trying to persuade Father to build a special guest wing onto Great Smials. If I can ever persuade Strider to visit, I want him to be comfortable!"

"Well," said Frodo, "Bag End already has accommodations for Big Folk."

Mellor smiled, and said, "Accommodations or no, I was quite comfortable at Brandy Hall last summer--"

But Merry's attention had been caught by someone coming into the inn. There *were* just a few folk there already, but this Man, short and slight, and dark, seemed agitated. He went over to the innkeeper, and they gave a quick look over at their party.

The others looked to see what had drawn his gaze. "Something's amiss," whispered Eradan.

Frodo nodded, and Pippin sat up alertly.

In just a moment, the innkeeper was bringing the other fellow over to their table. He spoke apologetically to them. "Beg pardon, Master Mellor, Master Eradan--word's gone out that Rangers was here, and this is Ab Thistlewool, what works as a hired man for Tell Goatleaf. They have a farm just outside the village. He says as he has summat to tell you."

"Uh, Mr. Rangers, sirs, you mayhap as have heard that a merchant got waylaid by some brigands last week? It 'twere on the lane to the South of the Road, not far from my master's place?"

Mellor and Eradan sat forward attentively. "Go on," said Mellor.

"Anyhow, the goats, well one of the kids, it wandered away from its mam--and, and I had to go and fetch it, and, well, anyhow I seen these fellows a-camping in the woods. There was three o' them, and the way they was talking, well, I knew they must be the robbers. When I heard that there was Rangers here at the Inn I thought as I'd best come and tell. And, uh, well, I could take you there…"

Mellor stood up at once. He looked at Frodo. "We need to go and see to this right away, if you would excuse us."

Frodo looked troubled, but nodded.

"Shall Merry and I come along?" asked Pippin. "Perhaps you could use an extra sword or two?"

"I do not doubt, Sir Peregrin, that you and Sir Meriadoc would be of much help, but I think that the two of us can handle this on our own--it is, after all our job. Thank you for the offer though--I know it was heart-felt." He turned to Ab Thistlewool. "Lead the way."

And Eradan followed them out.

The hobbits gazed after them with troubled eyes. Merry tried to turn his attention back to his meal, but he had lost his appetite. Something about this did not seem right. He caught Pippin's eyes, and could tell that Pippin agreed.

But it was Frodo who spoke. "I do not like this. There was something untrustworthy about that fellow."





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